There has been near national hysteria in the last week following reports that meat sellers around the country are using dangerous chemicals to extend the shelf life of meat sold in the butcheries. One of the chemical that has been cited is formalin. This chemical is one of those mainly used for embalming the dead.

As expected, the public, especially in Kampala and other urban areas, has become agitated – understandably so – and many are already turning away from eating beef! The closure on Thursday of 11 butcheries in Kampala for poor hygiene and use of authorised substances to preserve meat has only added fuel to the flames.

While there is no agreement among experts that the quantities of the chemicals applied on the meat pose a danger to consumers – or whether indeed it is formalin being used, there is unanimity that there are serious gaps in regulation of the food sector.

The handling of meat – right from transportation of animals on sordid trucks to the slaughter in dirty abattoirs and distribution in makeshift vehicles – exposes consumers to many health risks.

It is, therefore, high time relevant government agencies addressed themselves to the whole chain management of food, especially beef, rather than only rely on gang-ho approaches such as we saw KCCA do in Ntinda, where they raided and shut down some butcheries.

We need a more thought out approach that should, for instance designate/establish proper abattoirs in places such as Mbarara and Nakasongola, where a lot of the animals for slaughter originate. The meat could then be transported in refrigerated containers to cold rooms in the city, from where retailers would pick it.

Retailers at local butcheries would only be licensed to sell meat if they have refrigeration facilities. They would also be required to saw the meat rather than have it placed on old dirty stumps of trees before it is chopped it with machetes. The current practice leaves a lot of pieces of wood in the meat, often leading to dental problems.

This should be followed by rigorous and constant inspections to ensure total compliance. Yes, it may be difficult initially to change the culture and practices of our butcher men, many of them uneducated or early school dropouts, but food is too important to our lives to be left to every Tom, Dick and Harry who has some muscle and capital to set up a butchery or meat kiosk.